Hindu City And Muslim Ghetto

How Muslim Ghettos Emerged in
Twentieth-century Calcutta

Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay

Throughout its colonial history, Calcutta had been a Hindu-majority city in the heart of a Muslim-majority province. Until the mid-twentieth century, despite bitter rivalry, the city’s Hindu and Muslim populations inhabited shared spaces, even in areas populated chiefly by members of one community. In such localities, there were scattered pockets where people of the other community resided, creating a complex inter-communal sharing of neighbourhoods, infrastructures, and resources. This feature of the city was evident from various colonial enquiries set up after Hindu-Muslim riots. The policemen handling on-ground riot situations in various neighbourhoods repeatedly pointed out the difficulty of zone-marking any part of Calcutta as belonging exclusively to the Hindus or Muslims. Ghettos did not manifest to the extent they do today.

However, the city’s character began to transform slowly in the inter-war decades due to the twin effects of urban renewal and communal mobilisation, culminating in an utter territorial defeat of Muslims in the religious war of 1946 which was followed by Independence, Partition, and the influx of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan. At ‘the stroke of midnight’ on August 15, 1947, Calcutta emerged as the Hindu-majority capital city of a Hindu-majority state–West Bengal. One of the outcomes of the territorial defeat of the Muslims in Calcutta was ghetto formation on a wide scale.

Calcutta witnessed two major communal outbreaks in the inter-war era—in 1918 and 1926. These two riots were confined to an area in central Calcutta bound by Beadon Street in the north, Bowbazaar Street in the south, Strand Road in the west, and College Street in the east. These two riots were also confined among the city’s prosperous Marwari trading communities and their ‘up-country’ Hindu militia on the one hand, and the Muslim working class and petty traders, residing in nearby slums and mendicant Kabuli traders (Muslims) on the other. These two groups had long-term stakes in central Calcutta’s marketplaces and neighbourhoods. From the last decade of the nineteenth century, this area of the city witnessed massive recycling of space through various municipal initiatives such as major street schemes, making way for gentrification.

Even though communal mobilisa-tions had wider, and at times, pan-regional characters (especially, north-Indian communal mobilisations in the inter-war era), the riots were also local affairs, spreading their tentacles via local and immediate animosities between communities and classes. During the riots of 1918 and 1926, the class character of communal animosity became amply clear. The territorial outcomes of these riots were mixed. Even though the Muslims were in a minority position in central Calcutta, during the riots, they continued to receive support and physical enforcement of foot soldiers from the Muslim-dominated industrial belts of the city, especially from the Howrah jute belt. Muslim workers from these belts would repeatedly invade the city, crossing the river and balance the outcome of the immediate territorial loss. As a result, even in mid-1940s, central Calcutta had a communally mixed population, more heterogeneous in character than it became a decade afterwards.

Urban Planning
In 1911, the colonial authorities set up an expert-managed Improvement Trust insulated from the fast-democratising municipal corporation, whose ‘street schemes’ in the central city were deliberately run through the bustees and the ‘street-less’ neighbourhoods to produce a more legible and automobile friendly urbanscape. The violence of planned street and infrastructure building—often associated with a mix of commercial, public health and counter insurgency imperatives—valorised urban land as it became one of the prime outlets of capital in Calcutta in the inter-war years. The Improvement Trust, which was at the helm of street building, was able to create wealth in Calcutta by means of the development and trading of property. It did so via strategic devaluation and revaluation of asset values at certain junctures in the inter-war period.

This process unfolded in the separation of the urban poor from their sites of production and social reproduction as ‘congested’ neighbour-hoods and bustees in the inner city made way for viable neighbourhoods as ‘land’ in the market. This led to speculation in empty land and gentrification along the axes of class, religious communities, and ethnicity. Simultaneously, dwelling spaces were converted into commercial spaces. Because of speculation, gentrification, and commercialisation, a housing crisis arose in the inter-war period.

During the inter-war years, Calcutta also bled into its rural and semi-urban frontiers as the Improvement Trust acquired land and built infrastructures for ‘suburban expansion’ of Calcutta. Yet the vision of a class-based graded dispersal of population (from the inner city) towards the newly created suburbs failed, as land speculation reached these places before the inner-city displaced populations could be resettled. Moreover, in the southern frontiers, the urban process faced some hitherto unprecedented obstructions in the form of repeated incidents of organised ‘soil raids’, legal challenges from substantial property owners refusing compensation packages (one case from Russa Road reached the Privy Council, for instance), allegations of scam between contractors and the Trust’s officials, and the overall marshy terrain dotted with water bodies, requiring considerable mobilisation of earth and rubbish from elsewhere.

Class and communal tensions made their way through this spatial and demographic churning and produced intermittent communal riots between 1910 and 1926. In early-twentieth-century Calcutta, religious polarisation appeared in a confounding conjunction with the Improvement Trust’s street-building initiatives. The ‘rational action’ of street-building, the ‘invisible hands’ of the real estate market, and crowd action during communal outbreaks constituted each other in a complex fashion in producing the twentieth-century city. The territorial outcomes of these riots were mixed. Even though the Muslims were in a minority position in central Calcutta, during the riots, they continued to receive support and physical enforcement of foot soldiers from the Muslim-dominated industrial belts of the city, especially from the Howrah and 24-Parganas jute belt. These forces culminated in a communal civil war in 1946. The civil war enforced the territorial division of the city into a Hindu city and its Muslim ghettos.

A Civil War
Hindu-Muslim riot in Calcutta assumed the form of a total warfare between these two communities only in August 1946 (known as the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’), when religious identity of the two warring parts of the society superseded ethnic, regional, caste and class identities. The riot of 1946 exceeding its predecessors in all aspects encompassed the entire city, its suburbs, and the industrial belt. In the third week of August 1946, the violence left about 15,000 dead, 100,000 injured, and 2,000,00 individuals homeless. Its impact on the city’s Muslims was decisive and irreversible.

One of the major registers through which the Muslim defeat manifested in subsequent decades was territorial containment. The civil war in August 1946 was a zoning exercise along the communal line, which was reinforced, expanded, and made durable by the subsequent processes of Partition and massive migration of the Hindu refugees in the city. This is the point that I wish to establish in the remaining part of this essay. I wish to document how minority ghettos, as a territorialised form of hyper visibility and containment, came into being in mid-twentieth-century Calcutta. I do not however claim that certain Muslim dominated areas did not predate these ghettos.

During the 1946 riots, it was difficult for the police officers working on the ground to mark pockets of the city as exclusively Hindu or Muslim. The neighbourhoods were mixed even in places where Muslims were in a clear minority in census terms. Here is an example from the Calcutta Disturbances Enquiry Commission that gathered considerable evidence about the police and military action during the days of the civil war:

N H Khundkar was OC of the Burtolla Police Station during August 1946. His jurisdiction had only 9 percent Muslim population as per the 1931 Census. Khundkar answered as many as 1706 questions during the proceedings of the Commission. What emerges from his deposition is a complex sociology of the civil war that calls into question existing paradigms of comprehending crowd action. It appears that Khundkar was operating from an epistemic space that was mutually incommensurable with that of the counsels. They ‘cut the world differently’ to comprehend the civil war. Khundkar’s ‘thick description’, illustrated below, frustrated the Commissioners. In the end there was a crisis of comprehensibility—as the Commission’s failure to uphold the ‘regime of truth’ became apparent.

Q.110: ‘Can you give us the proportion of the Hindus and Muslims living in your jurisdiction?’

Khundkar: ‘Muslims were not more than 9 percent, or a little bit more, but, after the disturbances, many Muslims have left the area. Some are selling their houses; some have just fled’.

Q.111: ‘Are they spread over the whole area in your jurisdiction, or are they in pockets?

Khundkar: ‘They have got bustee areas, Muslim pockets here and there’.
Visibly dissatisfied with this answer, one of the Commissioners asks:

Q.112: ‘Will you kindly name these pockets in your area?’

Khundkar: ‘One was in Ram Chand Ghosh Lane. Then in Musjidbari Street. It has got no particular name. This pocket is in Musjidbari Street. Then to the south of it is Ram Chand Ghosh Lane. Then there is one Muslim pocket there in Central Avenue. There is a mosque that bears a number of Musjidbari Street. At the crossing of Musjidbari Street and Central Avenue, there is a mosque, and near it, there are two or three houses. Three Muslim families used to live in the rooms attached to the mosque. They have fled during the disturbances… Then Gulu Ostagar Lane. Here is also a Muslim pocket, side by side with Hindu residents. (SLIDE) There were big buildings and huts here, about eight houses. Then we come to near about Beadon Row. Hereabout was a mosque and attached to the side of the mosque; three or four Muslim families used to live in some rooms attached to the mosque. There were also two or three huts close by. Then we come to what is called Chidam Mudi Lane. Near about is a mosque. Nobody used to live here, but the Mutawalli and three or four families used to live at this place. This is opposite Bhim Ghosh Lane. Here, there were no Muslim residents, but there were 2, 3 or 4 shopkeepers, Biri and cigarette sellers—Muslim shopkeepers. Then here is the police station and we are on Cornwallis Street. About this place, there is a mosque’.

Q.114: ‘Just north of the police station?’

Khundkar: ‘Not exactly north; it is northwest. Here we have got a big mansion, thereafter the residence of a Hindu gentleman. Then the mosque. By the side of that mosque, in the rooms attached to the mosque, some Kabulis used to reside. Then this is Raja Raj Kissen Street, and this is Sahitya Parishad Street. These are two populous streets. Here, there are both Muslims and Hindus…Hindus are more numerous. Between these is Goabagan Cattle Market’.

Q.115: ‘Do any Muslims live there?’

Khundkar: ‘There are Muslim cattle dealers, and some Hindu cattle dealers live mostly this side on the Sahitya Parishad Street, and the north side lives Muslims. On the north side of Raja Raj Kissen Street, there are some cattle huts, cattle khatals they are called, almost close to Upper Circular Road. We have Muslims here’.

Q.116: ‘Scattered?’

Khundkar: ‘Almost compact, around the cattle market except on the south where the Hindu cattle dealers live. This we come to the crossing of Upper Circular Road and Vivekananda Road. This is not exactly opposite the crossing. Here we have a market called Maniktolla Market. There is a mosque, and there are few residential huts as well as shops—Muslim shops. Here there was a Hindu shop also’.

Q.117: Is that all Muslim area?

Khundkar: No, mixed area. Muslims were very few, scattered all over. Here is a bustee at No. 76/1 Cornwallis Street, just west of the police station. This is a mixed area…

Q.118: Was there any Muslim bustee behind Ram Chand Ghosh Lane?

Khundkar: Witness (understanding that the President has no sense of the place): This is not near Ram Chand Ghosh Lane. It is south of that Lane and north of Sahitya Parishad Street.

What is important in this long conversation is how Khundkar handled a set of seemingly objective demographic questions regarding how many of which communities live where, by providing more of a visual/pictorial, i.e., qualitative description. The Commission members were trying to ‘fix’ the populations in time, space, and ratio. Khundkar, on the other hand, described mobile geographies and entangled realities of inter-communal, inter-ethnic and inter-class sharing of space. ‘Is Phulbagan Bustee a Muslim area? asked a commissioner. The officer replied, ‘There are Mohammedan houses as well as Hindu houses there’. A counsel clarified: ‘…also that part between Mitra Lane and Marcus Square is entirely Mohammedan’. Khundkar clarifies: ‘No, there are a lot of Hindu houses also’.

The discussion continued for the whole day on the 14th in this circular manner. It was evident that Calcutta’s spatio-demographic reality was difficult to zone-mark. On several occasions, the counsels wanted Khundkar to specify the ‘composition of the crowds’. How many Hindus and how many Muslims? Did they belong to the working class or the bhadralok class? For instance, at one point, Siddiky asked him to specify the ‘composition of the two mobs’: ‘I mean of what class they were composed?’ Khundkar replied: ‘Of the Muslim mob, some were wearing Pyjamas, some lungis…and of the Hindus, I saw young men, Bengali young men. Kalwars and low-class people on both sides’.

The Commission’s session with Khundkar remained inconclusive for want of a common measure. In other words, they failed to engage satisfactorily with each other’s ways of seeing the world. Hence, they often talked at cross-purposes. Their conversation exposed conceptual incompatibilities that highlighted the limits of their communication. Khundkar’s voice was recorded, but it was hardly heard. By the time Khundkar’s affidavit was read, its ‘context’ had already ebbed away into ‘archival compost’. The more the witness—Khundkar—clarified his affidavit; the more it appeared incomprehensible to Their Lordships.

Siddiky, a representative from the Muslim League in the Commission, was inclined to project the comparative innocence and victimhood of the Muslim community of the city. But Khundkar’s replies captured the complexity of the violence such that it frustrated any easy conclusion. At one point, Siddiky asked, ‘…by this could you judge that the mood of this Hindu mob was very bad?’ But Khundkar replied: ‘…the mood was bad on both sides. Equally bad’. Then, Siddiky anxiously asked Khundkar to give a ‘pocket-by-pocket’ breakup of the plight of the Muslims where Hindu mobs attacked them. He took up the instance of Musjidbari Street bustee: ‘And would you tell us now what happened to these 100 Muslims of Musjidbari Street’? Khundkar replied: ‘nothing happened to them…’ ‘Not a single Muslim was killed?’ ‘Not a single Muslim was killed because Hindus protected them’.

As already discussed, the disturbance of 1946 took on the dimensions of an undeclared civil war. The crowd movement sharpened religious boundaries in space. Its strategic formations through mobile territories claimed the streets while traversing them. In so doing, the crowds dissolved social distinctions to function as a transitory whole. The police chased the crowds to disperse them into more easily recognisable mobs. The crowds retaliated by chasing the police patrol or escaping from it. The sporadic and discrete mobility of the mob-police dyad produced a shifting spatiality in the city. On being pursued by the police, the crowds would disappear and re-form a few yards further or elsewhere. This continually kept the police patrol on the move in different directions throughout the city, blurring the boundaries of legal jurisdictions of different thanas.

However, the boundaries emerging from the civil war did not neatly overlap with the formal boundaries of the police stations. In the dialectic of boundary-breaking and boundary-preserving exercises, lines continuously moved with the mobile bodies that took the form of a crowd only by breaking and refunctioning these boundaries. Those were the moments at which power and violence intercepted each other on the street, simultaneously instigating, and electrifying those who took part in this game.

The creation of Pakistan and Calcutta’s settlement with India, coupled with the disbandment of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League and a spectacular influx of Hindu refugees in the city, produced material conditions for the ultimate territorial marginalisation of the Muslims in Calcutta.

Nearly five years after the Great Calcutta Killings, the Census of 1951 published a 50-year trend of the Hindu–Muslim population ratio in Calcutta. The census figures registered a decline of the Muslim population in Calcutta between 1941 and 1951 by 191,603 individuals. The West Bengal government recorded a flight of 130,000 Muslims by 1951 because of the fear of disturbances. The 1961 Census found near elimination of Muslims from select wards of the city and consequent Muslim concentration in some others like Park Circus, Ekbalpore, Bowbazaar, Karaya, Narkeldanga, and Beniapukur.

In this context, it is important to register the change that took place in Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta after ‘partitioned independence’. There were three major outbreaks in 1950, 1964, and 1992.

 The1950 riot illustrates how the riot-scape changed in Calcutta with Independence.

In February 1950, a riot broke out in wards 15 and 16, along with areas adjacent to Beadon Street, Amherst Street, and the working-class areas of the eastern frontier of the city. A section of the Congress workers, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha activists were actively involved in this violence. Golwalkar’s presence in the Burrabazaar area of the city on 15 and 16 February was not a mere coincidence. Certain neighbourhood clubs in the affected areas were actively engaged in evicting Muslims and settling Hindu refugees in the vacant houses and hutments. Such a case was reported in the Lalbagan area in north Calcutta. In this bustee, one ‘Lallbagan Seva Samiti’ claimed to have resettled 650 refugee families in 229 vacant houses earlier occupied by Muslim tenants. The Samiti received active encouragement from the northern district committee of the Congress Party.

A remarkable feature of violence during the trouble of 1950 was the proliferation of the cases of mob lynching of Muslims inside Muslim mohallas. What is important to note here is its continuous, mundane, and unofficial nature. Many of cases that occurred before the actual carnage on 8–10 February 1950 and some continued afterwards. During her investigation, Mridula Sarabhai encountered such a case at Ismail Street in Entally:

‘On or about 8 March; I visited the place…It was quite apparent the persons who were sleeping were attacked. From the way the doors and windows, even the lavatory doors, were broken; one could see the place had been the victim of a consorted attack and all this in a Muslim Mohalla only’.

Muslims in thousands fled to locations they perceived as safer as Park Circus, Beniapukur, Narkeldanga, Zakaria Street and Kidderpore. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay says that about 25,000 Muslim refugees were squatting in and around the Park Circus Maidan during the riot days. By the third week of March 1950, these refugees were all gone. The British Consulate speculated that they had ‘mostly migrated to Pakistan’. Some anecdotal evidence I collected during this research also suggest that several Muslim families who had migrated to East Pakistan in 1950, indeed returned to Calcutta within a year or so, and began to live in the Muslim dominated areas of Calcutta. Alam Khan, for instance, left for Pakistan in March 1950 with his family, when he was 9-year-old. They lived in Calcutta’s Bhowanipore—a predominantly middle-class Hindu area with a strong Sikh and Marwari presence—that witnessed severe communal clashes in 1946. When they returned to Calcutta in 1952 from Dhaka, they sold their Bhowanipore residence and found a place in Darga Road, Park Circus.

In the next one and a half decades, February 1950 became a norm rather than an exception. The cleansing of the Muslim community continued and remained largely unreported (in media) in the refugee-dominated localities. Jabardakhal or forcible and collective encroachment on public and private property by the Hindu refugees was a double-edged sword. It was a combination of ‘encroachment-as-class’ and ‘encroachment-as-community’. As encroachment-as-class, it snatched property from the wealthy owners and the state, leading to the fragmentation of capital sunk in land. As a result, the connection between urbanisation and capital accumulation, as we found in the inter-war era at the behest of the Improvement Trust, collapsed for many years in the post-colonial metropolis in connection with a fledging competitive electoral politics. If motion refers to capital’s expanded self-reproduction, then, jabardakhal was a durable obstruction. On the other hand, as encroachment-as-community, jabardakhal dispossessed and displaced petty Muslim property owners, becoming an electrifying agent of Hinduisation of the urban space. It activated a form of spatial mobilisation that enabled ghettos to manifest as zones of containment. According to the government’s estimate in 1954, there was at least 2.39 million acres of land under refugee colonisation in Calcutta, its adjacent 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and Nadia. As far as Calcutta was concerned, in early 1960s, Nirmal Kumar Bose found nine wards in northern, north-eastern, eastern and southern Calcutta where refugee Hindus had totally displaced Muslim labourers and artisans.

One direct impact of the sustained communal tension in the 1950s and 1960s was a growing crowding of Muslims of all classes in some of the pockets of the city, especially in south-eastern fringes such as Tangra, Tiljala and Topsia. This is a trend also being noticed by partition scholars such as Joya Chatterji and Anwesha Sengupta. Take the instance of the Dhobiatala Camp near Dhapa garbage dumping station. Here, 48 riot-torn Muslim families were stationed in 1964. An estimate of 1992 shows that this camp had a population of 5,000 individuals, of which 4,543 were Muslims.

Even the middle and upper-class Muslims of the city decided to live in these ghettos or close to the ghettos to minimise the risk of communal violence against them. What emerged consequently was communally near uniform, yet class divided and densely populated Muslim neighbourhoods which was a distinctly post-colonial phenomenon in Calcutta. Erasure of the general presence of a population group has ironically made certain practices associated with minority communities hyper-visible. The segregated ghetto did not so much mean the end of communal violence as its transformation into other forms and modalities of marginalisation and exclusion of religious minority. An outcome of efforts to ward off and escape from large-scale, major violence, the Muslim ghetto today marks and underwrites the latent violence of a majoritarian city. Just an anecdote would suffice to prove my point made here.

On 13 January 2020, I visited an Aadhaar registration centre in Muslim dominated Beniapukur in connection with another ethnographic research project. As I entered the premises, I saw a long queue of all age groups, from old ladies to children. I was puzzled since I knew that the area’s residents had all completed their Aadhaar formalities already. Fearful of losing out in the ‘identity race’ set up by Aadhaar, they had enrolled themselves at the very inception of the scheme. Upon investigation, I realised that this was a usual sight in that Aadhaar Centre. Numerous Muslim citizens came every day to the Centre to get the spelling of their names corrected. Why? One Zeeshan told me that in four of his crucial identity documents—birth certificate, school certificate, voter ID, and Aadhaar—there were at least three versions of his name (Jishan, Zishan, Zeeshan). This ambiguity had caused him many difficulties in all kinds of situations, and he was anxious to put an end to it. An old lady told me that sarkari officials (predominantly Hindu) regularly found these Muslim names culturally alien to their regular vocabulary. So, they imposed what they thought would be the correct spelling of a given name. The second clerk would find it difficult to accept the judgement of his predecessor and would ‘correct’ the spelling once again in the next document. The cycle goes on. The Aadhaar registration centres in these neighbourhoods never cease to exhaust their utility.

These micro-aggressions have contaminated the Muslim experience. As a result, every Muslim in Calcutta grows up afraid that they are losing out and lagging. It is a strange kind of blackmail where the minority citizens must conform to an imposed norm of ‘good’ citizen behaviour. The burden of proof always lies on them.

Unable to take on the Hindus in territorial conflicts like before, minority ghettos attained a durable shape after Independence. Simultaneously, majoritarian violence assumed a latent form—always present in the urban common sense—in which minority ghettos stood out as obstructions, a potential rupture to the normal rhythm of the city and accumulation in real estate. The ghetto can be a prospective site for redevelopment and accumulation—a hitherto under-utilised and under-capitalised site. What is needed is just a ‘correct’ penetration of the land market which would drive away minority obstructions to the further frontiers of the city.

The invisibility of the Muslims in Calcutta’s public discourse is however compensated by their hyper-visibility in the ghettos. For the Hindu majority and the majoritarian state, the Muslim ghetto represents a site where preparations are always underway for an imaginary battle that will eventually reduce Hindus into a minority. The ghetto is seen as the haven for radical ideas, Kashmiri terrorists, and Pakistani secret service interlopers. Like the migrants, the minorities are destined to be the subjects of a perpetual war. In this majoritarian view, the majority appropriates the tribulations of the minority, so that none can escape the spectre of the threat of minoritisation—a state where both majority and minority mirror each other as minority.


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023